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Olympics boxing hero lauded for fight with one of his best pals

Gritty pugilist Freddie Gilroy carved out fierce reputation as amateur and a professional

Published 29/06/2016

Former boxing champion Freddie Gilroy, who has died aged 80
Former boxing champion Freddie Gilroy, who has died aged 80
Former boxing champion Freddie Gilroy at home in Belfast with his beloved wife, Bernadette
Freddie (right) in action against Billy Rafferty in March 1960

The annals of Irish boxing will always have a special place set aside for Freddie Gilroy, who has passed away aged 80.

The gritty bantamweight was one of the few pugilists from the Emerald Isle to enjoy amateur and professional success to a similar degree - and his popularity never waned.

As with so many fighters who have enjoyed great acclaim, he became synonymous with his rival John Caldwell.

In 1962, the two battled it out at the King's Hall in a contest that had fans salivating weeks beforehand. Freddie came out on top after Caldwell suffered a cut eye that brought the fight to an end in the ninth round.

My late distinguished Belfast Telegraph colleague, Jack Magowan, described them doing battle like "two alley cats", with the opening round reducing the crowd to "a state of gibbering uncontrolled hysteria".

Caldwell, a master craftsman, forsook his polished, mesmeric skills and allowed ego to take over as he went toe-to-toe with Gilroy and came off second best.

Around 12,000 packed into the King's Hall that atmospheric night, yet Freddie would have happily left the battle alone.

"John and I were great friends," he once said. "We travelled the world together with the Irish team, going to the likes of Australia and America. In the 1956 Olympics, we both won bronze medals.

"We had that great fight in the King's Hall. The interest was amazing, but, you know, it was a fight that I never wanted because we were close."

As Freddie alluded to, he and Caldwell wrote their first symbiotic story six years earlier in Melbourne when both returned to Belfast with Olympic bronze medals around their necks - Caldwell the hero of the Falls Road, and Gilroy of Ardoyne.

After carving out legendary amateur status, they headed down the professional route, where Freddie's natural power made him an exciting prospect. He was quickly into his stride with a knockout victory on his debut in 1957 at the Ulster Hall. Three years later, he was British, Commonwealth and European bantamweight champion - at a time when such belts were much harder to come by than in today's ring scene.

A world title shot beckoned and the stage was set in 1960 for Freddie to dethrone Frenchman Alphonse Halimi. All seemed to be going to plan at the Empire Pool, Wembley, until the 13th round when the Belfast man walked on to a sizzling right hook to the head that saw him sink to the canvas.

Few men would men would have had the resolve to rise from such a blow, but Freddie did and kept throwing leather until the final bell.

After 15 gruelling rounds, Halimi was given the verdict by the judges. A year later, the Frenchman had the World title ripped from his grasp by Caldwell, who died in 2009.

Freddie would once more lift the British and Commonwealth titles before the epic finale of his career on 20th October 1962 when he won Belfast's equivalent of Nigel Benn-Chris Eubank. Sadly, he would later misplace the Lonsdale belt he won outright, and despite numerous public appeals, he was never to see it again. But the memories of his ring exploits will never be forgotten. He was truly an Irish boxing legend.

David kelly

Belfast Telegraph

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